Paul and Rich have a follow up discussion about Marc Andreessen’s newest article and ask the important question: How can we connect and empower people to create crucial tools for society when the industry has become so transactional? Are we able to create necessary social momentum when there’s no money involved? Paul puts out a plea for Postlight to create a software development kit for education at a platform level. It remains to be seen if venture capitalists are ready to shift their focus to do the same. (Perhaps that’s an idea for Marc Andreessen to think about!)
Rich Ziade I’m lookin’ forward to essay number two.
Paul Ford Oh!
RZ From Marc Andreessen.
PF Yeah, I’m not. [Rich laughs] It’s time to nap [music plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Alright, Rich, you know, look . . . we were talkin’ a lot about that essay by Marc Andreesen the last episode, right?
PF It’s still a little bit on my mind. And what’s on mind is why aren’t we building—[music fades out] It feels like the idea that everything has to be a marketplace or have a transaction built in has just taken over our industry. And I think there’s more to platform thinking and thinking about ways to connect and empower people than just that, right? And it’s almost [mm hmm]—you remember this, I just remember, like, there was a point in the 2000s when you just couldn’t think a thought that wasn’t, “The market will solve this.” And that was—we were—that was—or even before, like under Clinton. And, like, you know, it feels like we’re in this zone where, you know, what platforms are we gonna build? How do you empower people?
RZ I think, I mean, you’re hitting on it, right? Because it is an amazing thing when a framework or a tool catches fire within a community. Everyone becomes more productive; they commit to it; they rally around it. So how do you get that kind of momentum going because there’s no money involved in it, right? There’s no money involved with tools like React. How do you get that kind of momentum? Social momentum.
PF I’m glad—I’m glad you brought up React, right? That one’s in my head; there’s other ones in my head. We should—let’s talk about this for a minute [ok] and then—
RZ Sounds good.
PF And see where we go.
RZ Well, you know, I think—I think he views public sector as wasteful, as slow.
PF He says—let’s take him at his word: “I expect this essay to be the target of criticism. [Mm hmm] Here’s a modest proposal to my critics.” That’s a bad use of ‘modest proposal’, frankly. It’s from the Jonathan Swift essay, it’s about eating babies. So like I think he’s—Anyway, regardless, ah, “Instead of attacking my ideas of what to build, conceive your own!” Exclamation point. [Chuckles] Which I love the implied like, “You asshole!” “What do you think we should build?” Question mark. There’s an excellent chance I’ll agree with you.”
RZ He’s asking the wrong question. He’s asking—The question I would ask him is, “How do you infuse that sort of entrepreneurial energy and forward motion into institutions that are supposed to just put the school lunch out?”
PF Yeah, that’s right, and not just that. Do you have to create a marketplace in order for there to be success here too?” Like, does someone need to build the platform? You know, there are other technologies besides networked platforms with transactions in the middle.
RZ We could have world class educational tools in everyone’s hands. It wouldn’t take a lot. Postlight could do it! I mean we could do it. Seriously. The truth is—
PF No, we really could, right? And—but you know where you could build on? And this is the thing, like, build it on top of Wikipedia. Like, that’s software’s great.
RZ There’s all sorts of possibilities! The problem—the thing he’s not speaking to is, “How do I get these through?” You can’t get ‘em through! You gotta go sell ‘em to The Board of Ed of diff—do you know what that is like? They are still debating apples like which apple supplier for the lunches.
PF And it’s like, are you gonna get that meeting? Where suddenly the word comes down that everyone needs to take this platform very seriously.
RZ Yeah, I mean, how do [stammers]—and you oftentimes see these private—these public sector sort of institutions put in place like, “This is gonna be the such and such innovation fund and—you know, to advance this or that in, you know, education or transportation and—” And it’s never serious! It’s never serious because the system that’s in place is [slowly] so deeply rooted and so rigid that to break it it takes massive, massive change. Frankly, change on the order of a pandemic.
PF Look, I mean, you go back to those early innovation labs, right? And you look at the stories. The stories are not what you’d expect. So it’s—They had a spare computer and they came up with Unix, and they built it relatively quickly. And you know what they used it for?
PF Formatting patent applications cuz that was a big problem . . . inside of Bell Labs. So like—so like [chuckles] from there we have billions of computing devices in the world today running that same operating system on those same concepts.
PF But it was because like, you know, it was sorta what was sitting around that they could solve and they built—but what they built and what they made and this is also true of Xerox Parc and sort of the way that they borrowed stuff from the Mac [yeah]. Boy, was it a toolbox!
RZ It was a toolb—Right? They weren’t really attacking a problem, right? They were just building a thing.
PF And they didn’t create the market!! They created the—they created tools. This is where—I think, like morally, I’m just like, what are we building? Are we gonna build tools that allow people to take them and do really interesting things? Kinda with no—Assuming that it will come back to us, the tool builders, [hmm] in good and interesting ways or are we gonna create big, transactional networks in which we can be in the middle of everything and get our cut . . . And if it’s the latter, we’re on like year 30 of that and [yeah] it looks like this!
RZ Right. I mean, look, there are some good stories like Khan Academy is a cool story.
PF Sure, if Wikipedia—there’s just great—there’s good stuff out there.
RZ There’s good stuff out there.
PF You talk to some, you talk to teachers, and they lose their minds about Khan Academy but regardless, [yeah] there are a lot of people learning a lot of things.
RZ [Crosstalking] There are efforts, right? That aren’t driven by being a middleman and getting a cut, right? They are out there [that’s right] but they’re few and far between. So I guess, you know, nobody wants to talk about how you change the system, the public system, so that you can do this stuff, right? Like, I don’t wanna tell him what to build! I want him to tell me—or I want ideas about how to change how the system works, so the kind of innovation that happens outside can happen inside.
PF What superpowers do you need, right? Like, what powers do people need in order to change the system on the ground? Like, what’s missing there? And then you go towards that, right? It’s [right] not how do we build the platforms so they can connect? It’s: what tools—and it’s a decentralized model instead of a centralized but even like, decentralized technologies that everybody in Silicon Valley loves like blockchain [mm hmm] always have that transactional like, platform in the middle.
PF What I continue to love and be excited about and what I think about a lot is technologies that lodge in the human brain and then get magnified. And it’s a little slower, and it certainly doesn’t . . . yield money in the same way. Last thing I’ll say, right? There’s this guy Frank Lance who is a professor who studies games. But somebody asked him—and it was along the lines of, you know, what games are really interesting? And I was expecting, you know, I don’t know like Zork or Fortnite, and he was like, “Basketball, man. Somebody came up with basketball and people live their whole lives inside of it, and they have their careers inside of it.” You know, church leagues and so on. And you look at, like, the culture . . . that came out of a peach basket getting stuck to the wall and you go wow, “You’re right!”
PF And that wasn’t because of any particular moment. Like, it was just like—people were like, “This is fun.”
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF And now you’ve got the Michael Jordan documentary on TV and that is a way to be thinking. That’s—that as opposed to like, what is the thing we can build? It’s sort of like [stammers] play and games and ideas and all that sorta seventies gee whiz whore of hand waving.
PF It’s ok for it to be back in the conversation even if there’s no—no margin.
RZ Yeah, I’m glad he wrote this. I will say that because everybody’s tryna give advice about how to move forward. He’s trying something else which I appreciate. I think it’s just—it’s just fluffy. I feel like it sounds more like an introduction to something else than being the actual thing. [Stammers] It blew my mind a little bit that there was no way to interact with our teachers like how my son or my daughter were doing in class. Like, they picked [right] up a product called Class Dojo, I think it’s called.
PF Yeah, yeah! And that was just everywhere, all of sudden.
RZ All of a sudden it was everywhere because there was clearly a void—Like there was a massive communication gap and the truth is, guess what? Schools didn’t close. No one made it a priority and Class Dojo probably showed up—I bet it wasn’t signed off by the superintendent of schools. I bet it just sort of kind of took off and then people were like, “Oh, this seems ok.” And then this weird communication tool was in place, meanwhile it wasn’t a really good communication tool. Our teacher never emailed us. It was still parent/teacher visits every whatever, two months or three months.
RZ So, how does that—like, there’s no money there, dude. There’s no money inside of The Board of Ed for somebody to say, “I’m gonna start a company that’s gonna attack the communication challenge between teachers and parents.” Nobody’s gonna bother! Only when the earth shatters beneath our feet do people start to look at other things and revisit how we work together and how we communicate with each. Unless, it’s driven by money.
PF If you told me I had to build a relatively good . . . you know, like educational bulletin board system with moderation, using really modern web tooling, and that I only had two weeks to get a clickable prototype up.
PF I’d go, “Well, that sounds tough but with a team of four I could do it.”
RZ [Chuckles] Yeah.
PF [Stammers] The tools are out there! And it would—if you were like, “Hey, it has to be on Github and there’s gonna be other people.” I’d be like, “[Whistles briefly] Well, we’re gonna need to coordinate that,” but The Board of Ed can’t acquire that, right?
RZ No. No, they can’t acquire it.
PF They don’t want that.
RZ Everyone thinks that Steve Jobs was a genius. Steve Jobs actually was a genius. He was a brilliant guy. But there are a lot of brilliant people. Do you know why Apple saw the success it saw?
RZ My view—in my view?
PF Yeah, go ahead.
RZ Is because as soon as humans would cluster and block and divert and move you to the 12th floor and schedule another meeting, he would steamroll it.
PF Oh man, [chuckles] just a high pitched screaming mind, right?
RZ Steamroll, right?
RZ He viewed humans as—
PF Oh, he’d cry.
RZ He saw humans as doing nothing more than slowing down his vision, right? And that’s tyrannical, right?
PF It’s hard to date that person. Hard to, like, go out to dinner.
RZ No, no! He’s a disaster. Right? I read his daughter’s book, Small Fry, a very nice book. He’s—he’s crazy. He’s kinda mean, he’s kinda cold, but let me tell you: the only reason stuff made it out the door, time and time again, is that he essentially walked around the offices with a flamethrower. That’s it!
PF Oh, no, at that scale, right? It’s just miserable and people live in fear.
RZ He didn’t inspire—There’s zero inspiration, dude. He didn’t inspire anybody. It was terribly toxic, unhealthy, there was a lot of fear.
PF “I want it. I want it. I want it.”
RZ Exactly. Exactly. And so what you had there was someone that if you put them inside of The Board of Ed, or you put them inside of a classic institution—
PF But see they can’t function—he can only function in that environment [that’s right] where he can be the king of the king.
RZ That’s right. He could be the tyrant, right? So the question I would put back to Marc is, “How do you get that kind—how do you affect that kind of change inside of the big organizations that buy Q-tips at a massive scale and that buy school lunches and have been signing the same shitty contract and the food has been kind of horrible for inner city kids forever.”
PF Yeah like discs of pizza.
RZ Exac—All of it! “Why—how do you get that kind of change to happen? And don’t tell it’s a startup. Cuz it doesn’t work that way. Right? You can’t. It’s not gonna—those walls are too high. The startup can do that outside. They can let the food truck revolution happen but how are you getting inside of those institutions? That’s where he’s—where it falls short for me. It’s like inspiring but yeah.
PF I’m gonna say something really nerdy, right? Which is that at a speed I never expected . . . React, which is a framework for building web apps and treating things on the frontend like components, is everywhere. It’s places I would never have expected. It took five, six years. I thought it would take 15 before that style of development—where these dynamic front ends would suddenly start popping up. And if you go—and it’s everywhere! It’s NGOs, and it just became a standard. So that, to me, innovation got in. All the apps that—All the web apps that people are building today are built with these new, modern frameworks and it’s just a given. Not everywhere, I’m sure it’s probably not even the majority but the ones with the most impact and the—It is significant. There’s no fooling around. Including Facebook, right? So like, why does something like that get into everywhere? And then trying to get a new idea—Like a framework at that level that allows people to accelerate and get their work done is great. A platform that is being sold into an organization: endless friction. Incredibly hard to convince people.
RZ I’ll tell you why: because the non-programmers don’t really care.
PF Right. So, if you appeal to the person at their disciplinary level—Also! It’s an open source tool that anyone can pick up and start using.
RZ Yeah, but like, “If you’re gonna tell me to change my workflow? The eight hops I have to take before a thing has to make it out the door—you’re tellin’ me it’s gonna be five now? Because I have to use a new tool? Who the hell are you? Right?
PF You know who solves this is—Whenever Apple . . . or Google decide that they’re gonna do something at the OS level, like the something-kit. You know, Healthkit or Homekit or whatever? Then they solve it! They build an SDK level set of hooks and libraries and then everything that gets built after that on mobile for—you know, if Apple says, “We’re gonna do Educationkit.”
RZ Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
PF Then—then—then people will start to build apps with Educationkit and those can go, you know, “Login through some sorta weird super secure way to the school systems and bah bah bah.”
PF So that layer works and open source works and—Like, [that’s true] but what happened there, to your point, is that Apple said, “Look: let’s create tools for developers to build tools for people in these disciplines. Like, we’re gonna go figure out what they need. And we’re gonna commoditize it and then we’ll help the engineers get it done.” Cuz frankly the engineers don’t have the resources to go figure out what they want over there. [Right] The engineers don’t—Like, “We know what heart rate needs to be for the doctors, so we’re gonna take care of that.”
PF “And then we’re gonna give you tools to monitor heart rate.” And that’s kinda what Google Classroom is, although obviously they spent about 45 minutes on it.
RZ Yeah, and look: I don’t know if Andreessen Horowitz has a, you know, a non profit fund or something like that. Go build SDKs for these old institutions.
RZ Go build the building blocks so that education and transportation and distribution and all these—all these organizations—
PF Or, frankly—we don’t do this very often: God almighty hire Postlight do that! We would just be in paradise. And we’ll do it cheaper than anybody else, I swear [Rich laughing] to God.
RZ Best ad ever!! Seriously!
PF Ah I know, I swear to God! Build an SDK for education at a platform level in this firm? I will—We will do an unbelievably good job of that for much less money than anybody else.
RZ But you know what? That doesn’t fall—that has to be in another department at Andreessen Horowitz or any other VC because it doesn’t fit their thesis, right? Their thesis is not about that, right? That’s what—how are you going to—
PF Are we ready to get off of that? Are we ready to go outside of our worldview in such a foundational way and say, “You know what? This is just gonna be good for society. So, it’s not just an NGO, it’s a project, we’re gonna just—you know. Let’s invest and see what happens!”
RZ Look, I’m a capitalist as much as any other capitalist but, you know, I’ve also learned that lecturing people about value systems . . . don’t move the needle.
PF [Chuckling] Boy, it doesn’t! It doesn’t work at all. It’s something on the—capitalists need to learn—Also folks on the left have a little trouble understanding. Like, for super progressives.
RZ It doesn’t work! How am I gonna get in? Right? Like there’s a stealth—
PF You know what doesn’t—Shame doesn’t work!
RZ Shame doesn’t work. Doesn’t work. That’s like the first thing you delete in your file system as a capitalist is shame! [Laughs]
PF But you know, everybody, everybody on every frickin’—every ideology is like, “Well, it’s not shame, I’m just tellin’ them why they should feel bad.” [Rich laughs] And it’s like, “Ok!” And I’ve had to unlock this in so many different ways on so many different sides of my career cuz ultimately my job is always kind of rhetoric, right? Like, I wanna help you communicate to that group of people [yeah]. And you have to just constantly pull them back and be like, “No, if you tell them that they’re awful, bad people they—they don’t think that!” Right? Anyway—
RZ I gotta say though that maybe there’s hope for Andreessen. He’s tryna—he’s frustrated. He’s sad. I feel like—
PF Ah! Where’s he been?!? He’s runnin’ for office because he thinks everybody’s an idiot and that we should have planned better and you know, they had—they had signs up at Andreessen Horowitz saying, “We’re not shaking hands right now.” Which was very—very prescient and then the press [Rich laughing] and then press made fun of the venture capital people for—
RZ Wait, wait, are you telling a story or is that real?
PF That’s real! Somebody made fun of them for, you know, having posters up about not shaking hands and this was in February.
PF Everybody’s still bitter about it. But there’s a lot of like VCs out on Twitter going like, you know, “I was saving lives with my tweets!”
RZ Yeah. Yeah.
PF “What were you doing?” And they—a lot of this is like a weird referendum on the role of the media. It’s just [yeah]—it’s just poison. The poison keeps creeping back in. And what we need are SDKs for education that are open source and available to all.
RZ Exactly. Empower people with building blocks and, you know, and—
PF And, look if it’s—Frankly, Rich, if it’s not on a phone! Like we always talk about technology as if it’s something that has to be digital, for obvious reasons. Like, it could be a book of patterns, I don’t care.
RZ Yeah. Right. Empower.
PF Look: I know I’ve said—This is my last point for a while. Turns out I’m surprisingly passionate about this subject, right? But like I keep getting emails about people building contact tracing apps and it’s from different groups cuz, you know, I’m a nerd who talks in public.
PF And what I’m realizing we need are better project clearing houses so that we can help people find each other to collaborate more readily. And I’m sure there’s 20 of those too! I just said it. Like I’m sure there’s 20. Like, how do you get there? Which means that you need a marketing effort so that everybody knows, “Hey, I had an idea, I should go to the Good Idea Warehouse.”
PF “And see if I can help.”
PF Right? As opposed to calling my friends and saying, “Let’s fix this.”
RZ Well you’re trying to create a marketplace in a non-commercial setting is what you’re trying to do there. Which is a good thing.
PF That’s right. We need those models too.
PF Cuz there’s so—it’s a dollar to set something up like that if it’s well constructed.
RZ Mm hmm. Well, I think we solved that—
PF Alright, let’s figure out how—
RZ We did it together here.
PF [High pitched] Oof! I wanna build—I really do wanna build a good education platform. Can you imagine?
RZ This is about human alignment. You know when like a senator or congressman that they draft that bill and it’s just then they have to work the people [mm hmm]. They need 180 over here and they need another 60 over there. And then they need a couple more supporters over there and they’re bartering and they’re movin’ stuff around. The bill’s sound. People buy into it. It’s just you navigate humans and with big—
PF Oh yeah. Well and somebody’s like, “Well, you know, if we’re gonna make sure that all the pig farmers have jobs, [mm hmm] then we have to ban abortion.”
RZ Yup. And it’s an election year. I can’t go there. It’s an election year.
PF And you’re like . . . “Jim! No! Don’t do it, Jim!”
RZ Exactly. It’s not about the actual bill anymore. It’s about people.
PF No, it’s the pork barrel sort of, like, [yup] all that madness.
PF You know, I just—it’s also hard too because I know—civic tech is very important but I almost think it’s a different thing, like, I feel that at the SDK and the framework—You know, it’s like, go out, figure out what they need, build them the tools to build what they need. Build a couple sample apps. You know? And then—it’s hard. That’s hard thinking! You gotta think like Apple.
PF You know, you gotta think like Google but in the—but in the interests of the world.
RZ Give them the OS, give them the SDK, give them the tools, and let’s see what can change.
PF And make it easy to adapt. And—boy, it’s hard. It’s all hard. But you know what? What’s the point otherwise? [Music fades in]
RZ I’m lookin’ forward to essay number two. From Marc Andreessen.
PF Yeah, I’m not [Rich laughs]. It’s time to nap. Anyway, look, if you need us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here, we’re always here.
PF Via email.
RZ Be safe. Have a wonderful week.
PF Yup! We’ll talk to you soon [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].